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Ofsted Praises Changes in SCC Children’s Services But Notes More Work Needed

Published on: 14 May, 2021
Updated on: 16 May, 2021

Rachael Wardell, executive director of children, families and lifelong learning at Surrey County Council. Image: Surrey County Council.

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

Surrey County Council hopes their inadequate children’s services rating will vanish at their next inspection after a “reassuring” Ofsted check.

Inspectors who visited by video calls in March said the council had “been on a significant improvement journey” since a 2018 inspection found many vulnerable children were left exposed to harm for so long.

Now they said the council and partner agencies were “committed to driving forward the changes required”. Before 2018, improving outcomes for vulnerable children had “not been prioritised”.

In December, Rachael Wardell became executive director of children, families and lifelong learning. She said: “We’re getting better all the time. But we don’t yet think we’ve done enough, so we’re not stopping.”

A new model of working, aimed at supporting families early, was launched in 2019 following the arrival of children’s services director Dave Hill.

The report suggests Surrey council has managed to stay on track for improvement despite two major setbacks, coronavirus lockdowns a

nd the sudden death of Mr Hill last June, the officer deemed “instrumental in leading necessary improvements”.

Ofsted said social workers had continued to visit children regularly throughout the pandemic and the council had made sure vulnerable children were safe early on.

What work still needs to be done?

Ofsted inspector Matt Reed said improvement is still required, and “despite an increase in demand, timeliness of decision-making has been maintained”. But “further work is required to ensure all referrals that require social care intervention are dealt with in a timely way”.

The letter added: “For some children, over-optimism by professionals regarding parental capacity to change or sustain improvements has resulted in multiple interventions, and they have continued to live in circumstances of neglect for too long.

“Despite efforts to avoid the need to have to take children into care to secure their safety, this is not always successful, and some children enter care in an emergency rather than in a planned way.”

Mrs Wardell said they will continue to roll out a neglect assessment tool that encourages professionals to recognise neglect by looking at the whole picture.

“They can be preoccupied with one or two elements,” she said. “They can look through a particular lens, such as how much they’re eating or if they’re clean, but maybe miss asking if they’re supervised or attending school.”

Also flagged by the watchdog was the need for a more thorough understanding of safeguarding issues in the service for children with disability.

The council has a new dedicated assistant director post, with strategic leadership and senior operational responsibility for teams caring for children with disabilities. This is temporary but a permanent officer is to be recruited.

How has the council achieved improvement?

Since last summer, Mrs Wardell said, they had recruited 15 more social workers in assessment teams and five extra workers in the children’s single point of access (C-SPA), where people call if they fear a child is unsafe.

She said the former cabinet member for children, Mary Lewis, had “never stopped advocating, and had the support of the cabinet as a whole” and the children’s services team had followed through commitments under Mr Hill’s leadership, for two reasons.

“First, it’s never a good idea when you have a good plan in place to disrupt it and put your own stamp on it,” she said. “You end up taking backward steps instead of maintaining forward momentum.

“And second, I would have put it in place myself anyway.”

A multi-disciplinary safeguarding response advocated by Mr Hill was a measure she had implemented in Berkshire, Mrs Wardell said.

This involves specialists in mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse supporting parents where needed. “Then the social worker stays focused on the child”.

She said the support of partner organisations in health, schools, the voluntary sector and police had been helpful. “We don’t always see that in other authorities, sometimes partners aren’t helpful,” she said. “It takes a collaborative effort.”

What’s next for the service?

Surrey was given two weeks’ notice for the March 24 check, which was “an unusual amount of notice because of Covid,” said Mrs Wardell.

She expects a full graded inspection in the autumn. “They are resuming inspections in the summer and we are overdue, so I think we will be high on their list.”

“You can never rule out the possibility it could go badly wrong. But when you look at the work that’s happened already I think we will no longer be inadequate.

“The pandemic and the death of our director could have derailed our progress. And what this report said reassures me, but more importantly families in Surrey, that those two very big events didn’t.

“They didn’t divert their attention from what needed to be done.”

Cllr Fiona Davidson

R4GV’s new county councillor Fiona Davidson (Guildford South East), said: “I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read the full report, but the latest Ofsted check indicating recent improvements is encouraging.

“Rachael Wardell continuing the strategy of her predecessor is also encouraging. It will be interesting to see whether a full inspection in the autumn confirms the positive trajectory of the check.

“Given the long history of failure, there is absolutely no room for complacency and there are areas that still need significant progress, particularly the number of looked-after children placed outside Surrey.”

Cllr Chris Botten

Lib Dem Chris Botten, who was vice-chair of the children’s select committee, said: “My greatest regret about losing my seat last week is that I will be unable to continue to work with members and officers to see the journey for children’s services through to a good outcome.

“Clearly, the report identifies both progress and further work. I don’t think the letter contains any surprises, and it is good to see the work of social workers on the ground is developing.

“Rachael Wardell has my very best wishes for her continued work, and I look forward to reading of further progress.”

Surrey has about 570 social workers in its children, families and lifelong learning department.

Anyone concerned a child is unsafe should call C-SPA on 0300 470 9100 9 to 5 Mon to Fri, or 01483 517898 out of hours.

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